I had the pleasure of speaking with Ken Jeong, who you may know as the guy running around naked in The Hangover, but whom you should know for his hilarious antics on the struggling NBC series, Community. The guy is inherently hilarious and he's almost too good at his job. Even when he earned a tiny role in Transformers 3 (which recently came out on Blu-ray), he brought his signature insanity and thus his signature brand of humor to his short, yet epic scene. So just how did this off-the-wall comedian end up in a Michael Bay movie? Well, he had a few things to say about it. Plus, we're pretty sure he's angling to get Optimus Prime to make an appearance on Community...
Something like Transformers—for a lot of people who are fans of yours from your comedy—is a bit of a departure. So, I think the biggest question is, how did you get into the more dramatic side of things?
Michael Bay had me in mind for the character Jerry Wang. That was based on a recommendation from Todd Phillips, who is a good friend of mine. I got to meet with Michael a few months before production. And I loved it. I loved the character, and I was in it from that meeting. I was like, “Man, I’m in! I’m so in right now! Please let me be a part of this!” It really came from there. And then we rehearsed…the great thing about it was, we rehearsed with Michael and Shia a few times before production, just to kind of get our characters down. And that was great. We improvised a lot of stuff, and Michael incorporated a lot of that into the script. And that was the great thing about it—how collaborative Michael was, and is, in terms of his process. And so, by the day we got to shooting it, we were all warmed up. We were ready to go. And I think that was the beautiful part of it. It was great how welcoming they were for me. And so, it was really kind of utilizing what I already did before in comedies. Improvising and kinda figuring out your way of the character. I found a very similar approach to it. And that was great. Shia loves comedy, loves to improvise…it was great. It was like a master class conservatory of learning from the best in terms of, like, sci-fi/action moviemaking. It was one of the best experiences of my career. It really was.
Yeah, you don’t get to work with as many cool robots on Community as you do in that movie, right?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s a little bit different. There’s not as many Decepticons on Community.
Maybe this season we should bring the Decepticons to Community.
It could be the next parody episode! I was just saying! Next Community parody episode, everyone! And like, the study group turns into a bunch of Autobots. [Laughs] That’s hilarious. I bet there was—I think, actually—I believe Chevy Chase does a Decepticon reference. Last season. I believe that he does in one of the episodes. I forget. It might have been an Optimus reference. You know your world is very surreal when the TV show you’re on is referencing the movie you’re in.
Even though you got to bring a lot of your own style into the scenes that you were in, do you think that the approach is different in the settings, to a similar effect, but you just approach it in a different way?
It depends on the character. Everything I do, I don’t think about in terms of comedy versus drama or action in terms of my acting. I definitely think in terms of character. I think, like…let’s say that Señor Chang, for example, is a different character than Mr. Chow, who is way different from Jerry Wang. So, to me, it’s all about the character. Jerry Wang is a paranoid conspiracy theorist who, really, is kind of a catalyst for the rest of the movie to unfold. I remember Shia telling me, “In many ways, your part is the most important part in the movie, because you’re really unfolding a lot of stuff for Sam.” And I took that to heart. And he’s like, “You really gotta be invested in this.” And through my style of acting, I’m also, through the plot, informing Sam: beware and be careful. Because we don’t want stuff that happens to me, [that is] kind of working for the Decepticons, ultimately happening to you. So there was a lot of that going on. So, the intent of Jerry Wang, in many ways, is the purest attempt in wanting to save Sam. You’re right, it is kind of [taking] whatever energy I bring to a project, and using it for a different purpose. Whether it be for comedy or drama or action. But it was definitely for a different purpose. It was for Jerry to tell Sam, “Be careful, I’ve got your back on this. See through my weirdness and just see my heart!” [Laughs] “See through my weird energy that I’m bringing, and just know that I’m saving your ass!” So, that was really cool. And I’ve never played a character like this. And then, when Michael explained the death scene, I was ecstatic. “Oh, this is really cool! I get to have this cool death!” When he told me at the meeting that he wanted that…I don’t know how some actors react when they’re told that their characters die, but I was like, “Yeeeaaah!” I was lovin’ it! And, in the death scene, when my character falls off the building, there was a great stuntman that I worked with—I believe they later transposed my face on his body. That was brilliant. Yet again, in the right way, it made me laugh just seeing my face there. I remember my wife, we were watching the movie in a premiere, and my wife is crying [from] laughing at me dying. I don’t know what that means!
Yeah, I know! “Why are you laughing?!” No, it was great. And for me, my whole goal in this was just to learn from the best, and to keep up with Michael and Shia. That was my whole goal, really. I was a fly on the wall. They’re letting me in their world. And I just didn’t want to let them down. I just wanted to learn and keep up with them. And I really just trusted them, and it was a wonderful experience. I’d love to work with them.
It’s given you a taste for action?
Yeah, it really did. Because I never in a million years thought I would be in a Transformers movie. Or a movie with this level of CGI. I never in a million years thought that I would be a part of that. And things were clicking so well. And the thing about CGI acting that’s so hard, that I really respect Shia for, is…in comedy, in anything, when you have a scene partner that’s human, you just harness [and] react off that other person’s energy. And that’s pretty easy, when you think about it. When you’ve got a twenty foot Decepticon that’s about to kill you, it’s up to the actor’s imagination to react appropriately. You don’t have much guidance, except for Michael. But you don’t have the benefit of a scene partner guiding you there. They say acting is reacting. But in this case, acting is initiating the reaction. So, for me, that was the challenge. That was something that I’ve never done before on that scale. So that was great, and that was something that I really loved doing. And it was something that was harder to do. I really give Shia a lot of credit [for] acting appropriately off these huge monsters, really. And Michael is genius at setting the tone. He basically modulates the tone of that. And I love the shorthand that Shia and Michael had in production. It was not unlike the shorthand I have with Todd Phillips in The Hangover movies. It’s very similar. There’s that chemistry, and that trust that I observed…all I wanted to do was just keep up.
There’s a bit of a moment in that final death scene that’s a little reminiscent of the famous Paintball episode of Community. Do you know if that was intentional?
[Laughs] Oh, completely coincidental. I remember filming that, I believe [Paintball] had not even aired. The Community episode and Transformers are in completely parallel universes. That was completely coincidental. But there was something that I loved. Chang is just crazy, on Community. If you’ve seen last week’s episode, he’s just…he’s insane! And Jerry Wang is a guy who looked insane, but was very sane, and had very specific intentions. He definitely had those guns in case of a Decepticon emergency. And I love how he, in my head, was a normal guy with a family. There’s a backstory that I kind of created for my character: Jerry Wang was a guy not unlike me in real life. He was married, with kids, and he was kind of compromising himself, and making a deal with the Decepticons to save his family, because they had threatened to kill his family. That was the reason why he would be working with those guys. And he probably had a vendetta against NASA for not hiring him as a software engineer when he first started out. I remember telling Michael that. But with Chang? No backstory. He’s crazy! He’s a guy who made love to a mannequin leg last week. [Laughs] So, to me, the intents are completely different. That’s what I love. But no, the whole thing with the Decepticon…I was a Transformers fan when I was a kid. And you’re bringing back a lot of great memories. And with the 3D cameras—we used actual 3D cameras. You know, giant behemoth cameras. It was amazing to see. They’re very innovative with his photography of the scenes. There are some really cool angles, and some cool shots, that he would just come up with on the fly. And a lot of that pertained to the death scene, I remember. It was pretty amazing.
About Community -- Chang’s got a much meatier role this season. He’s kind of got his own thing with the head of security job. Do you think he’s done trying to get into the study group?
Well, first of all, thank you for even mentioning Community. I really love being a part of that show, and everyone there is my family. So, that’s all the genius of Dan Harmon. He came up with that idea. He told me over the summer, “I want you to be a security guard.” And I laughed my ass off. I was like, “Oh my God, that’s perfect.” And I really appreciate what Dan’s been doing, as a guy who loves to do movies. Señor Chang was a professor—instructor, really, of Spanish. Not a professor, he faked his degree. And then, Season 2, he’s a pathetic student. Season 3 is kind of a great splitting-the-difference, a blend of both. The authority of Season 1, the pathetic nature of Chang in Season 2. In terms of the study group, who knows! The great thing about Community—I have to keep it fresh, and I like not to think too much about where my character’s going. I really have to go with the flow. I think that’s the best way, for me as an actor, to get into the character. I think Chang is capable of anything. One thing’s for sure. He’s capable of anything. So unpredictable. And the beauty of these scripts is that I never know where he’s going next. You just reminded me, the Transformers DVD just came out, they were asking me all these questions about Michael Bay and Shia, you know. And I don’t know. This kind of career…I’m just thinking about Community using some Transformers references. To me, it’s an embarrassment of riches. I’m so lucky to be working as an actor, and to be working this much with such quality people on all levels. TV, comedy, or fourth biggest grossing film of all time worldwide. To me, it blows my mind. You can’t help but get better as an actor being involved with such great company. It really is…everything is beyond surreal to me. So really, thank you for asking me about the Transformers DVD because it truly was one of the best experiences of my career. One of the most unexpected experiences of my career, too. So, it’s great.